It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I ought to declare my interests as set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: my wife is employed at the Association for Decentralised Energy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson on once again securing a debate on this topic. I am pleased that she has done so, because I had to miss the previous debate secured by my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty, and I feared I might miss out on this series of debates about waste processing. Many hon. Members and I return to this issue because of the adverse experiences of our constituents who live alongside waste processing facilities, and whose voices often get lost in the decision-making process.
It has been four months since I secured a debate in this place to highlight the experiences of people in Avonmouth in my constituency. Avonmouth is home to a significant number of waste processing plants, and in the past decade it has seen a hundredfold increase in the tonnage of waste passing through our local facilities. That is not just waste from Bristol or the greater Bristol region; it comes from London on trains every night. We are processing waste from across the country. That exponential growth has real consequences for local people, the most challenging of which has been an annual spike in the fly population during hot weather periods, especially when there are large quantities of bundles of waste stored on open land.
I have had to raise this issue frequently since my election, and it is all the more depressing because so little seems to change. The persistence of the problem has understandably intensified local people’s sense of powerlessness over a decision-making process that has concentrated this number of plants in the area, often without local consent. People are angry, and I share their anger, not least because it is clear where the system has been going wrong. In Avonmouth, as in Sunderland and other parts of the country, these plants have not arrived by accident.
Bristol City Council changed planning policies in good faith in 2011 to try to favour the circular economy approach to dealing with waste, as opposed to landfill. Its intention was not for Avonmouth to become a dumping ground for the nation’s rubbish, but when the city council opted to reject planning permissions for large-scale incinerators and other companies in Avonmouth, those decisions were just overturned by national planning authorities. The Mayor is trying to do his best in Bristol City Council. He has invested a significant amount in the recycling centre and in opening a brand-new reuse centre, where people can reuse white goods and other types of furniture instead of putting them into waste, but on this issue he seems to be unable to fix the problem.
As I have argued in the past, two main things must happen. First, the Environment Agency must be given a much broader range of powers to allow it to deal more quickly and effectively with minor and frequent breaches that do not immediately lead to the revocation of a licence. Secondly, the planning system must better reflect the clear human cost associated with the concentration of individual sites processing waste in a particular area. I have said before, and I say again, that I do not believe the cumulative impact of individual sites or their proximity is properly considered.
Avonmouth is a classic example of those issues. In my debate last year, I drew attention to a series of breaches by a company operating locally that had violated its permit more than a dozen times in the space of a year. It was eventually singled out by the Environment Agency, but a very high frequency of breaches had to occur before action could be taken. It should not take bad behaviour on that level to warrant enforcement action. Even when permits are revoked, the resulting appeals process is long, complicated and costly, imposing an obvious disincentive for the Environment Agency to deal with the individual breaches that collectively create such massive problems for local residents. The agency should have at its disposal a wider range of remedies, sanctions and fines that fall short of outright revocation.
Of course, we recognise that waste processing must happen, and we would rather that it be done in a way that is not landfill and that has wider circular economy implications. However, frameworks for granting permits and planning permissions need to work in tandem to consider the concentration of existing waste processing facilities locally, as well as their proximity to each other and to local residents. The local planning system must therefore work more intelligently and more compassionately, recognising that capacity considerations must be weighed against the wellbeing of the people who are most directly affected by the processes.
I am conscious that there has been quite a lot of change in Secretary of State and ministerial roles, although I am pleased to see the same Minister back again for this debate. I wrote to the previous Secretary of State, I have resent my letter to the current Secretary of State and no doubt I will need to resend it again next week, but I hope to get a response about how the Government can take action on this issue. The debate today shows that this is not an isolated problem in Avonmouth, but a problem right across the United Kingdom.
In my debate here in Westminster Hall last year, the Minister shared my concerns but seemed to suggest there was nothing further that the Government could really do at that time. I find that hard to believe. Will the Minister today set out what her Department plans to do about this issue, perhaps in the Environment Bill that is coming to the House soon, and whether, given the obvious national concern expressed here today, a wider review of waste processing in the UK is required?